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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

December 3, 2007

Knowing that the audience knows that they’re starting out on a near three-hour ‘arthouse’ western, Andrew Dominik, the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, makes a really smart move and decides from scratch to tell his story plainly, simply, and with as many beautiful images as possible. We start with James (Brad Pitt) standing in a fabulous horizon-reaching cornfield, clouds scudding across to the sunset; over images of his thousand-yard stare, the narration begins:

 

Quote:

“He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue…he went everywhere unrecognised and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch…he also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found Creation slightly more than he could accept.”

Immediately we know that this is not Pitt’s voice, and as the film progresses we realise it belongs to none of the other players either; it is an anonymous Chorus (the text comes from Ron Hansen’s biography of the same name), shifting easily from scene to scene, delivering guidance that we might see the characters in this story as real people, a very human mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. Following the opening cadence of Hansen’s re-imagining, like the clouds above that turn and tumble over Jesse’s head, there are thin, dark slivers that rumble threateningly amid the description:

 

Quote:

“He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to…”

The camera drifts away from Jesse and the gathering dusk and switches to woodland camp where the James gang is about to undertake what will end up being their very last train hold-up. This is a tour de force, delivered with such care and attention to detail, but producing so many startling images, that you cannot imagine anyone else bothering ever again to depict a similar event. Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) board the train with a calm, military swagger, marshalling their troops with casual authority. Around them they’ve gathered a rag tag bunch of scallywags and petty villains from the local hillsides, but chief among this group are the slightly more regularly employed Ford brothers, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Charley (Sam Rockwell), whose network of familial connections mesh together several gang members. It is this set of connections that will ultimately bring down the gang.

After the hold-up, Jesse heads home to his wife and children, and Frank announces that he won’t be taking part in any more raids. Clearly he has issues with his brother and sees the success of their partnership as a thing of the past. It’s a wise move. As the older James brother leaves, the gang themselves set off to their individual safe houses, re-engaging with family and acquaintances. Each is followed, their individual characters fleshed out. It is not an edifying experience, for this is a very flawed and complicated group of men. No-one is more complicated than Jesse himself, who ruminates away on his own like a distant storm, but running him close in the enigmatic and troubled stakes is Bob – Robert – Ford, who is fascinated by the legendary outlaw. Comics and newspapers and dime novels are kept under his bed, he pesters the older man with tales of what the press say he’s done, but hasn’t. Pushed, he says that he could produce a list “as long as your night-shirt” of the connections they have:

 

Quote:

“It is interesting the many ways you and I overlap; you’re the youngest of three James boys, I’m the youngest of five Ford boys. You have blue eyes, I have blue eyes. You’re five feet eight inches tall, I’m five feet eight inches tall”

Frank, whom Bob approaches first, dismisses the boy by pointing his gun at him and ordering him away; Jesse accepts him.

Gradually, cracks appear in the gangs’ many relationships and at one point a close and terrifying shoot out inside a farmhouse results in one member’s grisly death; if you don’t want to see an exit wound in a human skull, consider this your warning. Another member is rumoured to be thinking of taking the substantial reward for information leading to the outlaws’ capture. Jesse, on a tour of the disparate members’ locations, begins to suspect that something is up and heads out to try and shake things down. As Jesse pulls the gang closer, particularly Bob and Charley, the feelings that Bob has developed become ever more complicated. Now, there’s terror, for they are covering up the death of their colleague, believing that Jesse will kill them if he discovers their secret. Jesse invites Charley and Robert to take part in another robbery, allowing them to move into his home to keep him better protected. This is fatally ironic; Bob has already been approached by the State Governor, offering him $10,000 and clemency from involvement in the gang member’s murder if he kills James. And there the title of the film is explained; no need for a spoiler warning on this one…

It must be said that Pitt’s well-worn less is more approach can be tiresome, sometimes it doesn’t work, you see him thinking through his Oscar acceptance speech as he grates the lines out; you wish he were more animated, more whistles and bells. But here the technique is employed to spectacular effect, and he is shockingly good. His impression of a haunted man, perplexed and recondite to the point of destruction is remarkable, as he tries to hold himself in and be the legend he’s become, you can see in the tiniest gestures just exactly what it is costing him. But, astonishingly, he’s not the star of the show, however good his performance. Casey Affleck, as the ‘coward’ Robert Ford is mesmeric. Gauche, obsessed, full of compulsive glances left and right, this is a man riven with great contrasting themes of fixation, repression and the need for affirmation – which doesn’t come – that arrogant, muderous bully before him isn’t the myth he expected (“He’s just a human being,” he tells his brother). In the final act, he takes Jesse down and then his real struggles begin.

Be careful what you wish for.

Affleck’s Bob Ford ultimately emerges as a character more fractured and broken than even the bandit he destroys. The legacy he creates in one terrible moment of history-making produces a fame that he is totally unprepared for, regardless of the wealth of newspaper cuttings he may have collected and absorbed. It is an awful, horrific, destiny that he creates and watching him stare into the same distance that Jesse looked at in those opening scenes is sobering indeed.

This is a long, beautiful and studious piece of work, but it is also remarkably modest in its reach. There is legend, there is fact, and we have always, continue to do so, and will always, mix them up. Clear minds have created a clear-minded movie, but the minds on show are anything but.

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